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Can Anything Be Bought? How Gamete Matching Creates Inequality
Allowing prospective parents to choose the racial and economic characteristics of donors risks enshrining inequality and reintroducing eugenics.
By Chaya Tong
Today’s market for gametes, genetic material like an egg or sperm, is nearly everywhere. If you walked around my college campus at Emory University during my freshman year, you would have seen the posters you would expect, tacked on bulletin boards and taped on stairwell walls at an elite college. There were endless club flyers for debate and radio, events on campus, concerts, and free food. But you also might have seen something that seemed less usual: advertisements for sperm donations.
“Jerks Wanted,” the posters read in bright yellow letters, “donatesperm.com.” Though the sperm bank advertisements may have seemed out of place, they were a normal site at a college like mine. Yet their presence on my college campus reflected a broader trend. Like any good company, the sperm banks were marketing a product: genetics.
The gamete market and the gamete selection in fertility treatments that it commercializes can be a form of eugenics, the use of genetics to increase characteristics people deem desirable, and we must evaluate its role in our society carefully. A system that allows for designer babies by letting people choose gametes on the basis of desirable traits such as where their donors go to college — or even their race — can be explicitly elitist, perpetuate racism, and may not even work.
In the United States fertility industry, would-be parents can access information about everything from race to genetic history and in many cases, where their sperm donors attended college. Sperm banks prominently highlight the elite educational backgrounds and prestigious careers of their donors, referencing institutions like “Stanford, NYU, Harvard, and USC” and professions in “medicine, law, the physical sciences, or public service.”
Why shouldn’t they? Name-brand degrees and high-earning careers are attractive to potential parents and for the fertility industry, potential customers. However, promoting sperm based on “backgrounds that share common excellence,” as one website claims, is not scientifically grounded.
“Associating educational ability with gametes certainly seems to amount to a form of elitism,” says Dr. Hane Maung, honorary researcher in philosophy at Lancaster University. “It perpetuates pseudoscientific thinking about the relation between educational ability and genetics.”
Does gamete choice promote elitism?
Maung points to a 2022 Nature paper about a genome-wide association study, or scientific genetic survey, of over 3 million people worldwide, which showed that level of education was dependent on environment, not genetics. Giving parents the choice over gametes from graduates of elite schools vs. lesser-known schools vs. people without a college degree is giving them the choice to reproduce with and continue a line of people from elite backgrounds. After all, the majority of college graduates in the United States are statistically wealthy. By choosing donors with elite education, therefore, parents are often choosing donors from wealthy backgrounds and perpetuating elitism.
This isn’t the first instance in history where sperm banks have intersected with eugenic ideals of intelligence. In 1979, Robert Klark Graham opened the “Nobel Prize Sperm Bank,” a specialized sperm bank intended to create genius children descended from notable high-achievers. All donors were required to be white and in a heterosexual marriage and supplies would only be available to white, married heterosexual women. 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics winner, William B. Shockley admitted to having genetic material in the bank. In total, 218 children were born using sperm from Graham’s bank. Clearly, the idea was both marketable and lucrative. Graham’s bank was eventually shut down and accused of eugenic practices, but its impact has lasted into modern times.
The process of receiving sperm was anonymous and controlled by potential parents’ physicians before Graham created the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. When it debuted, it introduced the idea of parental choice into the fertility industry, leading to our modern-day system of selection. Graham’s bank highlighted the idea of marketing intelligence that today’s sperm banks, which allow donor information such as education to be presented to parents, have leveraged.
Alongside educational attainment, race has also become a marker for genetic desirability in this industry. A 2018 study from Finland, published in Social Science & Medicine, revealed a bias in fertility clinics: they often favored white gametes, rejecting pairings of donors with a darker skin tone with recipients of a fairer skin tone, while the reverse was accepted. The study illustrated the racist undertones that promoted reproduction with fair skin and discouraged reproduction and continuation of darker skin. Muang says the Finland study “suggests that gamete donation certainly can contribute to forms of fetishization based on race.”
In his own research, Muang writes that ethnic gamete matching in reproductive services suggests that race is genetic rather than a social construct and runs the risk of promoting stereotypes. Assuming that physical characteristics of a particular ethnic group are driven by biology “easily risks slipping into the attitude that some ethnic groups have features that are ‘superior’ to those of others, or even the attitude that some ethnic groups are intrinsically ‘inferior’ to others,” he writes. For gamete donation specifically, Muang wrote that this kind of thinking encourages “prospective parents from a socially privileged ethnic majority to reproduce in their donor-conceived children certain valued characteristics they associate with their ethnic group.”
Does gamete choice unbalance the population?
Indeed, studies show that Black and Hispanic donors are underrepresented compared to their numbers in the U.S. population while Asian and white donors are not. While this could be due to barriers that discourage donors from certain groups, it also means that, preference aside, potential parents have a wider selection of Asian and white gametes, which could lead to decreased marketing of marginalized groups’ gametes.
Even when education and race are advertised in the gamete market, the selections potential parents make are never guaranteed to play out in real life. For the future children of these selections, acceptance into their family is then based on pre-selected traits. “Recipients more and more believe that they should get a perfect donor in all respects,” Dr. Guido Pennings, professor of ethics and bioethics at Ghent University said. In his research weighing parents’ right to choose, Pennings explained that it is essential to stress the lack of guarantee that children of sperm donors will have their sperm donors traits to avoid disappointed parents that feel they have been misled.
For children whose gametes were selected on the basis of ethnicity, the pitfall of familial acceptance and unfulfilled promises is ever deeper. Preferring children that ethnically resemble their parents reinforces the idea that ethnicity is essential for children to fulfill their role in the family and the normative idea that a family must look like each other in order to be considered kin. This could isolate families that do not follow this norm and support a society where families that do not racially resemble each other are no longer considered valid or “normal.”
To be sure, an argument for parental choice in the gamete market: Allowing it protects the autonomy of the parent. “While gamete matching can contribute to injustices, there are also arguments that banning gamete matching could have negative consequences for the family’s right to privacy and the formation of an ethnic identity in the child,” Muang says. Pennings argues that knowing the ethnicity of a gamete donor is part of parental choice. “Just imagine that you need a donor and the clinic won’t tell you whether (s)he is Asian, African, Caucasian or something else. If you would like one that has the same ethnic origin as you, does that make you a racist?” he said.
Parents who use gamete donors choose traits such as education and race because they want the best for their children — a universal desire for all parents. But despite the good that can come from allowing parental choice, the commercialization of aspects such as race or ethnicity creates a system open to abuse, and invites eugenic thinking about how we select genetic traits for our children. Elite donor use is largely available only to wealthy families.
Is gamete choice an economic privilege?
Governments and insurance companies do not typically cover processes like IVF, so only people with enough money to pay for the services out of pocket have the ability to opt for elite traits. Taken to an extreme, this could create a society where rich people were genetically privileged in addition to having environmental advantages, which would only encourage injustice.
As Muang points out, there isn’t an easy solution to the problem of elite donor marketing. Allowing doctors to choose donors as it was before Graham, Muang said, is not a better option. It could extend medical authority too far “which could amount to denying a person’s reproductive autonomy,” he said, adding that the medical profession’s own biases could also influence gamete matching.
A possible solution could be taking educational attainment off of donor information or increasing restrictions on where and how gamete banks can advertise. “At the very least I think policymakers should keep considerations about the social challenges faced by oppressed minority groups at the forefront when deciding whether or not to endorse a policy of gamete matching,” Muang said.
Allowing parents to choose based on advertising for race or educational attainment is both elitist racist. As a society, we must also reconsider how this process defines the meaning of family. At best, the market allows for parental autonomy, but at worst, it creates a society of elitism where genetics that are desirable can be bought with money. Regulating the gamete market and considering its consequences is an important step to take. Only then can we create a world where a person’s worth is not measured by something as simple as what they were born with.